Age of the Mega-Alternatives

Two ambitious chains are glbbling up independent weekly newspapers. Can in-your-face journalism survive?

| July-August 1997

After years of trumpeting their independence from the bottom-line mentality that characterizes mainstream media, the alternative weeklies are finding themselves caught up in a sudden frenzy of mergers and acquisitions that raise important questions about their role in the culture.

In late April, Seattle Weekly, one of the oldest alternative weeklies—it has been publishing since 1975—was sold for a reported $9 million to Stern Publishing, owner of New York’s Village Voice. The deal also included Eastsideweek, a six-year-old spin-off of the Weekly that circulates in the booming region around Microsoft headquarters in suburban Seattle.

In March, Stern also purchased the Twin Cities Reader, which it promptly merged with City Pages, a competing local weekly it bought a month earlier. Stern shut the Reader down in one day, denying the staff a chance to publish a farewell issue after the paper’s 20-year history in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Stern Publishing, headed by Leonard Stern, whose family made its fortune on Hartz Mountain pet products, has owned The Village Voice since 1991. The Voice was the company’s only alternative weekly until 1994, when it purchased L.A. Weekly and its suburban companion, the Orange County Weekly. Since then it has been expanding at an aggressive pace, snapping up the Seattle and Twin Cities papers and launching a new New York suburban paper, the Long Island Voice, this spring.

Building a newspaper empire was the furthest thing from the minds of novelist Norman Mailer, psychologist Ed Fancher, and Greenwich Village bohemian Dan Wolf when they founded The Village Voice in 1955 as way to promote reform efforts within the local branch of the Democratic Party. Through the years The Voice gained influence in New York, not only for leftist political views but also for promotion of off-Broadway theater, experimental cinema, rock criticism, and the counterculture. During the ‘70s and ‘80s papers popped up in cities across the United States that borrowed heavily from the Voice’s alternative recipe.

There are now 107 papers in the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN). They range from the lavishly profitable Boston Phoenix to the struggling Missoula Independent. While the papers vary widely in journalistic quality and ideological alignment—some do masterful investigative reporting and political analysis and others are virtually indistinguishable from their mainstream rivals—these papers all share a similar business strategy: appealing to hip youngish readers who rarely look at daily newspapers but whom advertisers want to reach. Music clubs, ethnic restaurants, fashion boutiques, record labels, music stores, bike shops, brewers, auto dealers, movie theaters, video outlets, personal ads, and, in many cases, phone-sex lines provide lucrative advertising revenues. This success has sparked the recent flurry of high-stakes business deals.